How to Destroy Higher Education

The title above is the one The Daily Beast gave to an essay I published earlier this year. Over the last several months I’ve been arguing that the increasing focus on narrow, vocational education is a crucial mistake, one that neglects a deep resource of pragmatic liberal learning. I have been talking about liberal education at various venues around the country since the publication of my book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014). I wrote the book, and several op-eds since, because I believe that the kind of education we offer at Wesleyan is more relevant and compelling than ever before. I have argued that the current push for narrow, utilitarian forms of learning are part of the forces legitimating trends toward inequality in our country. The American tradition of liberal education has been a resource to combat inequality, and it can be again.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel, I will be talking about these issues at Wesleyan. I am particularly delighted that my Wesleyan advisor and mentor Henry Abelove, who retired just a few years ago, will come back to campus to introduce the talk.

We’ll be selling and signing copies of Beyond the University (all my royalties are contributed to financial aid at Wesleyan).

I hope to see many of you tomorrow night.

Year-End Thanks

Dear friends,

This year has been exciting in so many ways, and as it draws to a close I want to express my gratitude to the entire Wesleyan family for their many contributions to making our university the creative, caring and engaged place it is. I think back to the first-Friday MASH (the music festival that began to tap into the amazing vitality of students, faculty and staff), the competitive fire of our athletes, the generosity of our volunteers, the passion of our activists…these were all on display over the course of the year. In this, my seventh year, the student body continues to surprise me with its exuberance, commitment and ardent devotion to pursuing lives of purpose and meaning.

In this season, I like to remind folks to check out the faculty bookshelf. From philosophical considerations of concern and communication, to histories of the Ottoman Empire, from accounts of how we learn from experience at the personal level, to accounts of how we have failed to do so at the policy level, our faculty continue to shape the culture all around us. The scholars who produced this work are also spirited teachers who inspire students every week of the semester.

None of the scholarship and teaching would take place without the thoughtful and dedicated contributions of the Wesleyan staff. They make all these achievements possible. The staff’s determined, inventive efforts—from reading admission files to planning graduation events—are at the heart of all we do.

The Board of Trustees guides this institution with generosity, care and intelligence. Whatever differences we may have about specific policies, we are all dedicated to ensuring that our university remains at the forefront of progressive liberal arts education. I am grateful for being part of this team.

With best wishes for a restful break, a joyful holiday and a very happy new year,

Michael

Inclusion: Learning from Ability and Disability

Over the last few years I have met several times with students, faculty and staff concerning “differently abled” students. On one level, the university’s policies in this regard are clear:

Wesleyan University is committed to supporting all students in their academic and co-curricular endeavors. Each semester, a number of students document learning, physical, sensory, or psychiatric disabilities which may require reasonable accommodations to ensure access to education, housing, and recreation.

Access is a key word, and we want to make sure that all students — whether they are dealing with broken ankles, depression, or hearing loss — can thrive on our campus. This can be a challenge for all concerned, but all concerned can learn from the challenge; we can learn to try to experience the world from the perspective of people whose abilities may be different from our own.

In our classrooms students with documented disabilities are encouraged to make arrangements for appropriate accommodations. Laura Patey, Associate Dean for Student Academic Resources, can help in this process. This is from her office’s webpage:

Students who request accommodations are required to provide documentation outlining their needs.  In addition, students will need to meet with Dean Patey to discuss how appropriate accommodations or modifications may assist them in participating in campus life or courses and fulfilling course requirements. In addition, Dean Patey will discuss other types of support and services available to all Wesleyan students, such as tutoring programs and writing support through the Writing Workshop.

Like most professors, over the years I’ve worked with many students whose physical and psychiatric disabilities have profoundly influenced the way they think and feel. I have learned much from them about the conventions we used to divide groups into the normal and the abnormal, and I have often admired the capacities these students develop to navigate in a world that privileges particular modes of living and particular cultures. In recent years, the field of Disability Studies has been developing to examine these divisions, privileges and cultures. At Wesleyan, the field is described, in part, as follows: Disability Studies at Wesleyan does not ascribe or attribute disability to specific bodies, psychological conditions, or groups, but rather teaches students to understand the classificatory conventions that decide what is normal/able or abnormal/disabled in a given time and place.  The webpage for this course cluster lists many resources in the field.

In my first year of teaching I worked extensively with a student whose mental illness came, frighteningly, in almost predictable waves. She explained this to me forthrightly, and we studied together very closely in a tutorial on Nietzsche while she was able to do so. Her courage and clear-sightedness were inspiring, although they were not enough to prevent her illness from recurring. I’ve written about this experience in “On A Certain Blindness in Teaching,” and I often think about the many students I’ve had over the years who have faced their problems with extraordinary tenacity, sensitivity and openness. They are hungry to learn, and they teach their teachers so much.

When we invoke with pride the moniker “Diversity University,” we should remember that this also refers to people with a varied abilities/disabilities. In regard to economic inequality I wrote that it was not enough to recruit students from low-income groups and provide financial aid that meets their full need without excessive loans. A similar principle should guide our efforts at inclusion in regard to people with different abilities/disabilities. It is important but not sufficient to provide access, including the relevant accommodations.  We must create a campus culture in which all can thrive; we must create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

That’s a goal worth striving for, with all the abilities we have.

Inclusion and Economic Inequality

In three prior posts, I’ve written about obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion on campus, focusing on race, on gender, and on religious belief and political conviction. In this post I’d like to consider the impact of economic inequality on inclusion.

This summer I read about a new study that examined rates of economic mobility in different parts of the country.  Geography, it seems, matters a great deal in predicting the chances to better one’s relative economic standing. To quote a New York Times blog about the study:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

There are many variables at play here, and I don’t want to oversimplify the various correlations, but there was one factor that really caught my attention. “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.”

How is this issue related to our own campus culture? Over the last five years, Wesleyan has significantly increased the percentage of Pell eligible students on campus. This coincided with our eliminating required loans for our students with the greatest financial need, and reducing required loans for everybody else (replacing these loans with grants). We also began working with Questbridge, adding this great organization to our many partnerships with community-based organizations. These groups help us to spread the word about Wes and to recruit low-income, high-ability students.

But in our diversity forums last year, I learned that recruiting high-need students is not enough. We also have to create a campus culture in which they can thrive; we have to create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

What does this have to do with the general study of geography and economic mobility across the United States? Insofar as the experience of high need students segregates them from the rest of the student body, we have failed them. We will only get the maximum benefit from our financial aid policies when inclusion is the order of the day for all students – regardless of their economic status. Although I spent many hours working in a kitchen when I was an undergraduate at Wes to pay for my room and board, I was lucky to live in an environment in which this didn’t prevent me from having plenty of interaction with students from various walks of life. My teachers and fellow students never made me feel excluded from the ways they were experiencing Wesleyan.

That was a long time ago, and America today is a land of much greater economic inequality, much greater distance between the haves and the have-nots.

As I’ve written before, on campus we resist this trend because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation. As teachers, we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance — variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

There is no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in our campus culture these advantages of birth or luck shouldn’t mean much over time. All students at Wes have the opportunity to accelerate and deepen their learning. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, at Wesleyan students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

This week President Obama called for some important reforms in higher education aimed at making college more accessible and at creating a system through which prospective students would have as much information as possible about a school’s real costs, graduation rates, and the outcomes for the graduates. We must be prudent about new regulations because of the perverse incentives they can create, but they do address a real problem. It is unacceptable that so many schools with terrible track records soak up so much federal funding.

Wesleyan has been moving in the direction of sustainable affordability. We’ve announced a three-year option, which allows students to complete the same number of courses typically done over four years by using summer sessions. This saves families about 20 percent off the total tuition. We’ve also announced that we will no longer raise tuition aggressively, keeping increases in line with inflation. Over many years we have become an expensive school, and I know we have a long way to go to becoming more affordable. But this year and next will see our smallest tuition increases ever, and we will stay on this new course.

We will continue to recruit students of extraordinary potential from diverse economic backgrounds, meeting their full financial needs, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that they are fully included in our campus culture. Like those dynamic, integrated regions singled out in the economic mobility study, our campus must create conditions that bring people together in ways that positively enhance their lives. At a time when economic inequality is tearing at the fabric of our country, we must create conditions of inclusion through which all can thrive.

Spring Break and the Theses Writers are Hard at Work

Every March, faculty and students find the two weeks without classes a welcome breather before the intense rush toward finals and the end of the semester. For a group of determined seniors, though, the March break is crunch time as they prepare their senior theses. And there are many faculty who are working harder than ever as they read drafts and discuss final strategies with their honors students. March may come in like a lion and leave like a lamb (we hope) from the perspective of the weather, but for folks slaving away in their labs in Shanklin and Hall Attwater, or their carrels in Olin, or in the studios of the CFA, March is a key opportunity to bring projects closer to completion.

Sam Ebb, who I know as an active representative on academic matters from the WSA, is writing about compulsory voting, and why it may be a solution to solving the problem of economic inequality, misrepresentation, and the role of big money in the US. I wonder if Sam thinks we should try compulsory voting at Wes. Like Sam, Elizabeth Williams is doing a CSS thesis. Prof. Elvin Lim reports she is writing about the evolving role and involvement of the coal industry in the West Virginian economy, exploring the accumulated, path-dependent effects of the industry during its highs and especially its lows on the state’s post-industrial economy.

Michaela Tolman has been working at characterizing the types of neurons made by mouse and human embryonic stem cells, both in a culture dish and after transplantation to the mouse hippocampus. Under certain conditions we can generate inhibitory interneurons, which may be useful for suppressing seizures in mouse models of temporal lobe epilepsy, or so Laura Grabel tells me!

Like Amy Bloom, I’m a big fan of writer and musician Jason Katzenstein. Jason is writing a graphic novel, entitled Close To Me, about anxiety and love, both familial and romantic. How romantic is hairstyling in the Ancien Régime? Dean Andrew Curran tells me about another CSS thesis, by Eliza Fisher, who is studying the rise and consolidation of absolutism under Louis XIV and XV and the simultaneous creation of consumer culture. Her goal is to identify what the history of hairstyles in Bourbon France can tell us about the economic, sexual, and to a certain extent, political culture of the era. How cool is that?

Speaking of cool topics, Kari Weil told me about these COL theses: Samantha Januszeski is cooking up an analysis of the raw food movement in “You are what you eat”: An ethnographic study of Raw Foodism. Kyra Sutton is using her critical theory acumen to think about identity and religion in Islam’s Turn on the Couch: Psychoanalytic Theorizing of Muslim Identity in France. Ethan Kleinberg tells me that Savannah Whiting (Sociology and Romance Languages) is comparing the ways that Algeria figures in the work of Derrida and Bourdieu. Tobah Aukland (COL) is exploring Jewish art collectors and dealers in Paris from the late 19th century through Vichy in relation to issues of Franco-Jewish identity.

Jessica Wilson is finalizing curatorial decisions for her photography thesis exhibition. Jessica is interested in portraits of imitators. Nick Kokkinis (Math and Studio Art) is working on a painting senior thesis that Tula Telfair has described to me as post-minimalist. All I know is that post minimalism takes maximum effort!

Steve Collins reports that “the 16mm theses filmmakers are all tucked inside the editing rooms finishing their films.” Here are a few of his descriptions: “Ethan Young‘s black and white horror film is a nail-biting tale of a very scary house and some trauma that occurred there. It didn’t hurt the atmosphere that the crew found bags of sheep and goat carcasses in the abandoned house they were filming (they reported them to the police). Jenna Robbins is making a film about a young office worker struggling with her fantasies of perfection in order to find true love. Gabriel Urbina is editing and recording his score for his musical/hostage film, a classic Wesleyan genre mash-up combining gun-play with tap-dancing. And Chris McNabb is putting his deadpan wit and precise filmmaking into the final editing of Driven, his comic/melancholy tale of a suburban Dad pushed to his brink.”

Driven…and they call it a break….

Update:

Jennifer Tucker, who is organizing some lunch-time presentations by Wes students at the Allbritton Center later this term, wrote in from a research trip in England. She told me about the fabulous thesis of Aria Danaparamita, who will be presenting her work at a conference at Yale at the end of March. Aria’s title is British Borobudur Buddha: Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Orientalist Antiquarianism and (Post colonial) Development in Java.

Sara Mahurin, who is a visiting professor in English and African American Studies, writes about the following students: “Julia Christie is writing about visual experience — what it means to look at, look back, look ahead — in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop; Alex Kelley is writing a fascinating creative thesis comprised of “vignettes” — meditative micro-narratives from the perspective of an aging biology teacher, each taking for its starting point some species of animal; Alex Wilkinson is writing about legacy and liminality in Faulkner.”

James Gardner’s thesis is a historical analysis of Afro-Germans from the 1800s to modern day. It focuses primarily on Germans of African descent, their history and the reactions to their presence during three main eras of modern German history. James writes that “my research is a reaction to racism and discrimination that I noticed Afro-Germans faced during my recent study abroad in Berlin and work with one of the women who spearheaded the Afro-German identity movement in the 1980s, Katharina Oguntoye.”

I’m happy to add more names and topics for the next several days…

Katja Kolcio just wrote in with this good news:  Elena Georgieva who finished her thesis on the  connection between science and dance at Wesleyan, just won an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society Undergraduate Award for excellence in academics, research, and outreach (granted to only sixteen students every year).  She is presenting her thesis  to the Annual ASBMB Meeting in April 2013.  She also presented her work at the Harvard Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Research Conference in January.  Congratulations to Elena!

 

 

Commencement 2012: What Shall We Do With These Memories?

From my remarks at commencement, May 27, 2012. To read the really important speeches, see: http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2012/05/27/commencement/

When most of you began your Wesleyan education in the fall of 2008, the world was in a precarious state. It was an odd time to be investing in the future. But that’s what education is: a hopeful investment in the future. When you began here, America was waging two distant wars, the twisted legacies of a vicious attack on our country that took place when most of you were still in middle school. Today America has ended combat operations in Iraq and announced our intention to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan in the next two years. It is Memorial Day weekend, a time to reflect on the sacrifices that so many have made on behalf of our country, as we also reflect on the civilian lives that have been lost during these conflicts. We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

In the fall of 2008 our country was headed toward the most significant economic dislocation since the Great Depression. Gigantic financial institutions that had ingeniously found ways to make enormous amounts of money while claiming to have mastered risk with casino-like schemes, were suddenly calling loudly for government help. The entire financial system seemed to be on the brink of collapse, and through a series of measures designed to restore some basic stability to our economic life, the Federal government averted an even greater disaster than the one which has caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, their homes and their hopes for the future. We can recall those who suffer still in this economy, even as a fortunate few reap huge rewards.  We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

In what was for most of you your first year at Wesleyan you witnessed a classmate brutally murdered by a man whose mental illness is so severe that he has been judged not responsible for his actions. Not responsible for his actions but easily able to buy a gun while continuing to stalk a woman. We will never forget Johanna’s vulnerability to gun violence; we will not forget that her vulnerability as a woman is not a rarity in America. We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

For the last four years you have found ways to keep these memories alive while pursuing your education with, as we like to say at Wes, “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” Allow me a word or two about that boldness. I don’t mean just the ability to dance for hours while roaming the campus in large groups, nor do I mean the chutzpa to buy and then sell the ACB, or to challenge Rosenthal and Roth to a game of hoops. I mean the audacity to write poetry that is as searing as it is heartfelt; to perform classic works of theater or music with a personal reframing that is startling yet faithful; to crunch through terabytes of data to better understand patterns that others have long misunderstood. This is audacity in the service of experience, in the service of learning.

The class of 2012 has often displayed a commitment to rigor that complements this boldness. Whether it be the meticulous efforts to better understand the role of interneurons in seizures; or to analyze representations of trauma in great works of literature; or to study geochemisty and sedimentology through an analysis of local river systems; or to understand the differences between Hegel and Adorno on aesthetics…these all took a commitment to focus and detail, to painstaking analysis and clear communication. There is also, I believe, a form of idealism in this work: the ideal that the experience of learning, the labor of learning, will result in something worth building upon.

With regards to practical idealism, too, this class is truly remarkable. So many examples come to mind: Kennedy Odede’s work in education in Kibera, Kenya; or Tasmiha Khan’s project for clean water and sanitation in Khalishpur, Bangladesh; or Raghu Appasani’s efforts to improve mental health treatment in rural India; or Harry Bartle and Maddie Neufield’s collaboration with Middletown Youth Radio, or the scores of tutors at MacDonough, Traverse Square, Green Street and Upward Bound – so many members of the class of 2012 have defied hipster pessimism and irony with their brains and sweat. Along with my colleagues on the Board, faculty and staff, I marvel at your vivacity and your care.

At Wesleyan we believe that this vivacity and care are key to the happiness of a lifetime of learning, commitment and participation. We want you to remember the pleasure of the camaraderie and openness that have characterized the Wesleyan community to which you will always belong. We want you to remember these pleasures, the feelings of freedom and accomplishment, because we believe that these will stimulate you to continue to be bold, to be rigorous, and to nurture your practical idealism. This may not be as easy as you imagine.  From all around you will come calls for a practicality that is not so idealistic — calls to be more serious, more attentive to “the real world.”  Make no mistake: these are really calls for conformity, demands for conventional thinking that, if heeded, will impoverish your, our, economic, cultural and personal lives.

As I say each year, generations of Wesleyan alumni can unite around the rejection of conformity and conventional thinking. Wes alumni have used their education to mold the course of culture themselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by forces of fear and violence. As you shape this future, we are counting on you to remember.

We remember, but what shall we do with these memories? I trust you will gratefully acknowledge those who have sacrificed to nurture you, to guide you, and to protect our freedoms. I trust you will act to reduce violence in the world around us, especially those forms of violence that target the most vulnerable.  I trust that you will practice forms of thinking that create opportunity rather than defend inequality and privilege. I trust you will resist the temptations of conformity even as you reject puerile and narcissistic displays of separateness.

I have this trust because I have seen what you can do. What you can do fills me with hope, fills me with confidence in the investment of education. I know that you will find new ways to build community, to experience the arts, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, four years ago I helped unload your cars here on Andrus field, and as you go off to your exciting pursuits I will be cheering for you back here in Middletown. Come home often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and Good luck!

Creativity and the Curriculum

For the last four years or so, we have been making a great effort to emphasize some of Wesleyan’s traditional strengths. For example, Wes students are known as having intense political concerns, and we have tried to find ways of making the curriculum more responsive to those interests. The Civic Engagement Certificate and many of the activities of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the Center for Community Partnerships are helping our students find ways to make a difference in the public sphere. Provost Rob Rosenthal often speaks of the “engaged university,” and we are making progress in linking engagement with educational content.

Wesleyan students also are known for great creativity. Whether in Film Studies or Biology, the study of religion or the practice of artistic performance, Wesleyan students are innovative and productive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in musical performance. On Saturday night Jubilee was inspiring an audience in the Crowell Concert Hall, while in Memorial Chapel Aaron Peisner ’12 led a terrific chorus as part of his senior thesis work. Aaron had prepared choral music that spanned four centuries and several languages. The singers joined together in a labor of affection, intelligence and joy.

I’ve wanted to make sure that our curriculum is responsive to this energy from the student body. Last year I asked Charles Salas, Director of Strategic Initiatives, to think about how we should pursue the objective in Wesleyan 2020 of spurring creativity and innovation across the university.  He decided to focus on the disciplines represented in our curriculum.  The term “creativity,” of course, can be vague.  One department’s view can be quite different from another’s, so Charles met with a number of programs and asked them what creativity meant in their worlds and how they felt that they enhanced the creative capacities of their students. I hope many of you will read the full report, which gives a great sense of the discussions. Here’s the final paragraph, which gives a taste of what he found:

As for the discussions, I was struck by two things in particular.
(1) Regardless of how resistant faculty were to the subject of creativity in the beginning, it wasn’t long before that resistance dissipated. Faculty often remarked in the end that the discussions had been less predictable and more enjoyable than anticipated. It’s my estimation that faculty, in talking about their experiences in the classroom, found themselves in touch with their own passion for learning—itself a crucial if indirect contributor to student creativity. By modeling a passion for learning in the classroom, Wesleyan faculty spark the desire for such passion in their students—a desire that is necessary if students are to make use of the opportunity to develop their own creative capacities. And (2), many departments observed in passing that they viewed their seniors as more creative than their first and second-year students—observations indicative of the enhancement (purposeful or not) of student creativity across the curriculum.

 

Opportunity, Engagement and Confidence: Cures for the Civic Recession

Reading about a new civic engagement initiative announced at the White House this week made me think of all the powerful ways that Wesleyan students use their education to engage with the world. The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship is the latest incarnation of the university’s commitment to connect liberal learning to making a positive difference. Here’s a short piece I wrote on this topic yesterday for the Huffington Post.

The news about the American education system has been bleak over the last year — from elementary schools that seem “designed to fail” to for-profit universities that are scooping up borrowed tuition dollars without providing their graduates with much hope of gainful employment. No surprise then that the American public has grown increasingly suspicious of educators and their institutions. Once widely respected college programs are criticized for raising tuition in excess of inflation, despite the fact that they are giving significant financial aid and satisfying the demands of students and their families for (increasingly costly) support services. There is a growing lack of confidence in American education – one that mirrors the general crisis of confidence in the future. Of course, there are the pundits who feed on this crisis, having found a market niche for their cultivated pessimism.

But as the new year has gotten underway, I’ve been encouraged by some more optimistic and thoughtful notes amidst the nasty, noisy cacophony of negativity. One is the continued confidence that students outside the United States place in our higher education sector. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world are doing their utmost to get into American universities because they perceive them to be the best in the world. They are not driven by federal support for loans, or by illusions of an “education bubble.” They want a great education that can create value and opportunity. This is not the same thing as guaranteeing a particular career path (when did a diploma ever do that?), but these students know that a broad and rigorous liberal education increases one’s capacities for shaping one’s own future.

A second optimistic note that I heard sounded this week was that the Newman’s Own Foundation had just made a grant of $750,000 to an organization called Shining Hope for Communities. Shining Hope, founded by a group of university students, has built an elementary school for girls in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. The organization has already built the Johanna Justin-Jinnich Community Health Clinic adjacent to the school, and the grant will facilitate the construction of clean water and sanitation facilities. There are hundreds of examples each year of students at American universities putting their education to work to create a positive difference in this country and around the world. I have a soft spot for Shining Hope, since two Wesleyan students created it and dozens of their fellow undergraduates have been part of the work. These young men and women became social entrepreneurs by building on a broad educational base.

A third note of optimism this week came from the White House, where a group of education leaders spoke about how universities could reclaim their civic mission. Carol Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Martha Kanter, US Under Secretary of Education presented findings and recommendations from a new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, authored by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

Carol Schneider has identified what she calls a “civic recession,” but she and her colleagues aren’t satisfied with just coming up with another nicely pessimistic label. They actually have some recommendations for how to strengthen the connections between education and civic engagement:

1. Reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education
2. Enlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital
3. Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning–embracing US and global interdependence–that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem solving
4. Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of K-12 and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student
5. Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge.

I’d like to think that these optimistic notes are just part of a chorus of efforts in higher education that reconnects us to key trends in the world: opportunity, engagement, and civic confidence. International students who are competing for places at American universities see our educational system as offering opportunity. We must demonstrate to our own citizens that this is indeed the case. The young men and women who are creating free schools and clean water in Kenya are using their broadly based education to engage specific and important issues out in the world. They are pragmatists steeped in liberal learning. The authors of A Crucible Moment see our own recession – economic and civic – as the BEST time to invest in America’s future. By embracing civic learning and partnerships that strengthen communities, we can do the hard work of restoring confidence in the future. That is a core responsibility of education.

It’s easy to be a pessimist, and some writers get a lot of pleasure from showing how they are too smart to have faith in the future. As educators, we can’t afford these simplistic rhetorical moves. We need instead to join together to do the hard work of making our educational system truly a sector of opportunity, engagement and civic confidence.

 

Remembering Bob Burnett ’62 and the Highwaymen

I often celebrate the musical culture generated by the students, faculty, and staff at Wesleyan. Indeed, I’ve told prospective students to check out the music scene here if they really want to understand the personality of our school and to compare it with other places in which they are interested. I thrilled to hear Persephone Hall sing the national anthem at a football game, to listen to Sam Friedman ’13 play piano anywhere, or to marvel at the vocal ingenuity of our a cappella groups. I’m told that Eclectic still controls the music scene in Brooklyn (hence, the world), and I take great pride in the rock ‘n roll chops of Wesleyan’s Treasurer (John Meerts), Provost (Rob Rosenthal), head of the faculty (Gil Skillman) and dean for academic advancement (Louise Brown). Don’t even get me started on the all-star musicians in the Music Department! From the experimental to the traditional, they play with nuance and intensity.

This past week, we lost a storied voice in the chorus of Wesleyan’s music history. Bob Burnett died on December 7 at his home in Rhode Island. Bob and four other frosh were told to put on some entertainment for their fraternity in 1958, and they decided to become a folk band. While they were still undergraduates they had a #1 hit with their version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

Bob Burnett is at the lower left. After graduating Wes he went to Harvard Law School, and it looked like he’d left the music business behind. But more than three decades after that freshmen concert, the original Highwaymen started performing and recording again — and winning great praise! I started hearing about Bob and the Highwaymen almost on my first day on the job at Wes. They inspired friendship and devotion. They still do.

I took the photo here from Bob’s obituary in the New York Times. You can read more about the Highwaymen here and here.

 

 

Broadening Your Aural Experience at Wesleyan

I bumped into a Wesleyan student recently who told me about a wonderful website about music at Wes: auralwes.org. It is a terrific compendium of some of the great music being performed on campus. As far as I know, the site is completely independent of the official Wesleyan powers. Hats off to the students who have put this together!

Over the last couple of years, when high school juniors and seniors ask me about the various options among high quality liberal arts colleges, I tell them about a potential litmus test for the schools they are visiting. All the highly selective schools have great faculty devoted to teaching and research, and all of them attract interesting and talented students. One way to tell them apart, to determine the personalities of the schools, is to look into the musical subcultures of the colleges and universities. If a prospective student doesn’t care about musical culture at all, obviously this isn’t an appropriate “test”. But such a student might not be all that happy at Wes in any case. The vibrancy and dynamism of the student musical culture combined with the dedication to diversity and experimentation in the music department are essential ingredients of the Wesleyan experience. Whether you sing, play or just listen, music is something not to be missed at Wes.

So, check out the music department’s website, and check out auralwes.org. It’s unlikely that you will be attracted to everything that you hear. You may even be offended by some of the language. But if you open your ears, mind and heart, it is likely that you will expand your horizons and broaden  your aesthetic and musical experience. And that’s why auralwes is essential Wes!